Category Archives: Shipwrecks

The Swan Brothers

Another little gem I found in Nehemiah Cleaveland’s A Directory for Visitors was the site for brothers George and Albert Swan.

george and albert swan

This took a little searching, but I eventually found it.

Swan Brothers memorial

George and Albert Swan were the sons of Gustavus Swan, a prominent Ohio lawyer and Ohio Supreme Court judge. Both lived in Ohio and attended college at Harvard. George was killed on his way there via the steamship Lexington on January 13, 1840. Albert got sick and died 5 years later in New York, also en route to Harvard. Apparently, commuting to Harvard is hazardous for your health.

George’s death aboard the Lexington must have been horrific. The Lexington was a steamship that ran a route between New York and Connecticut, traveling along the Long Island Sound. It caught fire and sank off the coast of Long Island, killing all but 4 of its 164 passengers and crew.

The Lexington had been commissioned by famed billionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt, and was designed to be fast and luxurious. The ship could make the trip between New York and Providence in an unprecedented 12 hours, and would often have celebrated racing competitions with other steamships.

It was eventually sold to another company, and the ship’s wood-burning engine was converted to coal–a conversion that clearly was unsuccessful.

On the cold January evening when the ship went down, the Lexington was burning extra coal to aid in its struggle to get through the frozen, choppy waters. This proved to be too much for the engine, and around 7pm, the overheated smokestack caught fire. The fire quickly spread to the ship’s cargo of bales of cotton, and the Lexington went up in flames. All lifeboats that were lowered were quickly sunk–some crushed by the ship’s paddlewheel–leaving passengers and crew to drown, burn, or freeze to death. HORRIBLE.

A few random notes about this:

–Hidden treasure: A man named Adolphus S. Harnden was aboard ship, carrying a large amount of money, $18,000 of which was in gold and silver coins. He was one of the last people to go down with the ship. It is said that the gold coins are still there on the bottom of the Long Island Sound, but the silver ones would have deteriorated.

–There was a ship only 4-5 miles away that could have come immediately to the rescue–but the captain of that ship, Captain William Terrell, wanted to stay on schedule and refused to respond. He was criticized sharply for this decision by the press, and was publicly shamed–to the point where he was advised not to venture out in public. An article in the New Yorker opined, “Human language fails to express properly the feelings everyone should have at the utter stupidity of such a man.”

And here’s a clip from The Times Picayune, criticizing him all the way from New Orleans:

william terrill times picuyune
“Will he ever sleep? What dreams will come upon him?

–Only four people survived, one of whom was the ship’s pilot, Stephen Manchester. After climbing aboard a makeshift raft that sank, he managed to pull himself and a passenger up on a bale of cotton. He used his knife to cut holes in it for his arms so he could hang on. Despite Manchester’s heroic efforts, during the night, the passenger slipped off the bale and drowned. Manchester floated on the bale of hay all night long in the freezing water, and wasn’t rescued until noon the next day.

–Another survivor was second mate David Crowley. He too managed to climb on to a bale of cotton. He drifted for over 43 hours before coming ashore 50 miles down river. He then walked a mile to a nearby home, knocked on their door, and immediately collapsed.

The Awful Conflagration of the Steamship Lexington was one of the first lucrative prints that Nathaniel Currier (also a Green-Wood resident) sold. This image was so popular that Currier’s presses ran continuously for several months producing copies. Prior to this print, Currier had focused on more sedate imagery, and his business had not been much of a success. The Awful Conflagration of the Steamship Lexington showed him that there was profit to be made from images of disasters, and he began to make more. It was then that his business truly took off.

currier lexington

–A couple attempts to lower lifeboats resulted in the boats getting sucked into the paddlewheel and crushed to bits. One of those boats was full of passengers. If you look closely at Currier’s lithograph, you can see that he has included this detail:

the lexington crushed by paddle

The Pilot’s Monument

For Christmas this year, one of my presents was the book Green-Wood, a  Directory for Visitors by Nehemiah Cleaveland. Cleaveland was the first historian of Green-Wood (and eventually a resident of course), and the author of Green-Wood Illustrated in 1847. He published this little book in 1850.  It’s essentially a self-guided walking/carriage tour of some of the earliest sites in Green-Wood–along with some helpful illustrations.

One of the first illustrations and stories in the book that caught my eye was for The Pilot’s Monument:

thomas freeborn the Pilot's Monument

So I set out to find it. Cleaveland’s directions are pretty confusing, but the one thing he did mention is that this monument sits high up on a hill so that it can be seen from the harbor by other pilots. So I ventured up to the top of Battle Hill on a rainy winter morning, and lo and behold, I found it.

pilots monument green-wood

By the way, one of my favorite Green-Wood residents James Smillie created a lovely lithograph of how this monument must have looked back in the day:

james smillie pilot's monument

This must have been a popular attraction; here’s another depiction, this time by another Green-Wood resident, Nathaniel Currier of Currier & Ives fame:

The Pilot’s Monument is the final resting place of Thomas Freeborn (1808-1846). Freeborn was a nautical pilot. The Pilot’s job was to guide ships into the harbor, expertly navigating that area’s waterways. Pilots didn’t work on a particular ship–they worked in a particular harbor. Their job was to board approaching vessels and bring them safely to shore.

Freeborn worked the harbor in Mantoloking, New Jersey. On February 15, 1846, he was guiding the John Minturn into harbor when a violent Nor’Easter hit. This was a tremendous storm–the worst that region had seen in over two decades. At least nine ships were lost that evening, but the most dramatic and heart-wrenching was the wreck of the John Minturn.

The John Minturn was considered a “Packet Ship”–this meant that it carried U.S. Mail and other parcels, as well as a modest number of passengers. At the time of its sinking, John Minturn was carrying about 50 passengers and crew, 40 of whom perished that night–including Freeborn and the ship’s captain and his family.

The ship was not far from shore when it sank; in fact, when it finally went down it was only 300 yards away. Unfortunately, the storm and the choppy seas made it nearly impossible for any rescue efforts to reach the ship–despite the fact that they tried for over 18 hours. As a result, the John Minturn‘s final terrifying hours were witnessed by hundreds of stunned onlookers who had gathered on the beach throughout the night. The horrified crowd could do little other than watch as the ship went down in the frigid waters and frozen dead bodies washed up on the shore.

The New Jersey Scuba Diving Association has this chilling account from one of the rescuers. Here are some excerpts:

“At eleven o’clock at night with the storm still raging the Minturn went to pieces. We could hear the wailing shrieks that went up from the despairing ones, as the sea at last caught them in its merciless embrace. The cold was intense, and when the bodies came to in the shore, many were found frozen as rigidly as statues. Quite a number, I recollect, struck the beach in a sitting position, and thus we saw dead men sitting as upright as in life, as we drew them out of the way of the waves.”

“When day broke again, we saw the bow of the boat still remained intact and a group still huddled together upon it. One mother could be seen, with her babe clasped to her breast, her hair streaming in the wind, and her white face turned upward in prayer, appealing to Him who ruled and ruled above the war of the elements. When this section broke up, it was found that every one of the group had been dead for many hours.”

“Those on board were not idle. After several attempts and failures, two sailors entered a boat with a rope, and put off for shore. The current carried them so swiftly to the southward, that they were compelled to cut the rope, to save themselves from capsizing. They came safely ashore with the last boat, and found it impossible to return.”

I find this last story particularly interesting because if you take a look at the monument, you can see the severed rope, just above the depiction of the shipwreck:
pilot's monument green-wood

William Augustus Spencer

Ever since I found out that there were several victims of the Titanic disaster buried at Green-Wood, I have been keeping an eye out for their stones.

This pursuit, of course, was proving to be futile considering that Green-Wood has over 560,000 residents, and I have difficulty finding my way out of a Rite-Aid. So I cheated. I looked it up.

For the record, that goes against my self-imposed policy of only writing about stuff that I find while wandering around aimlessly. That said, there was still a lot of wandering around aimlessly because despite the fact that I had a map, it still took me 2 freakin hours to find this plot.

On the other side of Sylvan Lake is a small circular lot– on it you will find the rather regal plot for the Spencer family. It’s a nice little stroll from the main entrance.


William Augustus Spencer (1855-1912) was born into a large, fabulously wealthy family. He had two brothers and four sisters. One of his sisters famously married into Italian royalty, becoming Princess di Vicovaro Cenci. His brother Lorillard was a publisher who founded the well-known Illustrated American Magazine. The family split their time between houses in Switzerland, Paris, and New York.

By the way, one of the houses their family owned was Halidon Hall, in Newport, Rhode Island. This is not only an interesting example of Gothic Revival architecture, but it was later home to “The Cowsills”–a corny singing family act that had a string of #1 hits in the 1960s. They were the original inspiration for the also-corny TV show, The Patridge Family. They often featured Halidon Hall on their record covers.

But I digress…

William’s brother–Lorillard Spencer–died in March of 1912, so William, his wife, and their maid were taking the Titanic back to New York to deal with his will.

On April 14, the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank into the icy waters of the Atlantic. William perished–his body was never found. His wife, Marie-Eugenie Spencer, and the maid Elise Lurette, found refuge in one of the Titanic’s lifeboats and were eventually saved.

Marie-Eugenie and Elise were in lifeboat #6, which is probably the most famous of the Titanic lifeboats thanks to the presence onboard of “the unsinkable” Molly Brown.

Lifeboat #6
Lifeboat #6

But more on them in a bit.

William Augustus Spencer–like the rest of his family–was crazy about books. He had a huge collection of the finest illustrated and bound French books in his Paris home. From the New York Public Library’s site:

Sometime in 1910, according to an often-repeated story that has acquired the status of legend, William Augustus Spencer visited the new central building of the New York Public Library, still under construction at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. He was impressed—so impressed that he vowed there and then that he would bequeath his personal collection of fine illustrated books in fine bindings to the Library.

After William’s death, the Spencer Collection was established, and these books were amongst the first exhibitions at the newly-built New York Public Library. Here’s an example of one:

spencer collection book

You can look at all of them on the NYPL Digital Archives.

The book collection itself was worth over $40,000 (that is 1 gigabillion dollars by today’s economy), and was augmented by a generous cash donation for the future purchase of illustrated and finely-bound books. He also left behind a considerable estate. From the New York Times, July 10, 1914:

William Augustus Spencer, who was drowned when the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, left a net estate of $2,218,650, according to an appraisal filed yesterday. The beneficiaries are Mrs. Marie Eugenie Spencer, his widow, $1,273,071; Lorillard Spencer, his nephew, $396,683; the New York Public Library, $394,095; and Eleanora L. S. Cenci, Princess de Vicovaro, his sister, $50,000.

Marie-Eugenie Spencer (1864-1913) died in Paris the next year at the age of 48. She was from a lower-class family, had been born out of wedlock, and was generally not accepted by the rest of the Spencer family. When Marie-Eugenie and William married in London in 1884, not a single member of the Spencer family attended. I’ve also read in several places that she was a manic depressive and morphine addict, which could account for her poor health and early demise.

The maid–Elise Lurette–was with Marie Eugenie until her death. She lived a long and comfortable life shuttling between Paris and Switzerland until her death in 1940 at the age of 87. When she was rescued from the lifeboat, she had in her pocket a menu from the Titanic’s dining room and a first-class deck plan. Just prior to the disaster, she had mailed this postcard to her nephew:


Edgar C. Dean

Edgar Dean

This was the headstone that gave me the idea to start writing this blog in the first place. I took this picture in February of 2013, when I first started exploring Green-Wood. As usual, I was wandering around aimlessly, and didn’t bother to keep track of where I had been. As a result, I have not been able to find this headstone again (of course). I’ll find you again one of these days, Edgar C. Dean!

Edgar C. Dean, 26 years old, sailed on the Steamship Pacific on January 23, 1856 from Liverpool. That much we can gather from the stone. I did some digging, but there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot I could find out about young Edgar or his family.

An 1855 census lists him as living with his father, two sisters and an Irish servant in downtown Manhattan. His occupation is listed as “seaman”.

Dean Household, 5th Ward, 1855 Census
Dean Household, 5th Ward, 1855 Census

His father, William E. Dean, was a printer. His business was located at 72 Frankfort Street, just down the block from Tammany Hall. As far as I can tell, the Dean family home was nearby on Church Street.

The ship that Edgar was lost on–the Steamship Pacific–was built in 1849. This ship was large, luxurious, and fast: in 1850 she broke the record for fastest transatlantic crossing.

The Steamship Pacific
The Steamship Pacific

From Sandman Cincinnati:

She spanned 281 feet and was powered by two precision side-lever engines, each with a 95 inch cylinder traversing a massive 9 foot stroke. At full bore, she delivered 13 knots with all four boilers in service and consumed up to 85 tons of coal a day. The passenger compartments were just as impressive. They were spacious, finely trimmed and furnished with steam heat, an innovation of the day. The ship had many amenities to suit the passenger’s needs including bathrooms, smoking rooms, a barber shop and even a french chef in the kitchen. The reason for the elaborate extras was to compete with Britain’s Cunard line. The SS Pacific and her three sister ships, Atlantic, Arctic and Baltic, were financed by the US government and specifically built to win back America dominance in transatlantic traffic. Together they made up the new Collins Line – a small group of larger, faster, and more comfortable passenger vessels.

Here’s where it gets interesting: On January 23, 1856 the SS Pacific and all 189 people on board vanished without a trace. Most assumed that she had hit icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland due to the fact that it had been a particularly cold and iceberg-filled winter. However, five years later, a beachcomber walking on the shore of Hebrides Island in Ulst (Scotland) found a message in a bottle from a British sea captain who was a passenger on the ship.

The note inside read:

On board the Pacific, from L’pool to N. York. Ship going down. (Great) confusion on board. Icebergs around us on every side. I know I cannot escape. I write the cause of our loss, that friends may not live in suspense. The finder of this will please get it published,


A message in a bottle. Six years later. Well how do you like that.